Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

Thomas: Regional rugby is dying

Cardiff Blues are hoping Sam Warburton will stay on beyond the end of the season

Cardiff Blues chairman Peter Thomas has claimed that Welsh regional rugby is "dying by a thousand cuts".

The four professional regions - Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons - have yet to reach agreement with the Welsh Rugby Union beyond this season on critical areas such as revenue and competition structure, which remain unresolved against a back-drop of uncertainty surrounding next season's Heineken Cup.

Top players are also leaving Wales - Blues star Leigh Halfpenny's two-year deal with reigning European champions Toulon confirming him as the latest headline departure - and there is no apparent sign of a solution before this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship kicks off on Saturday week.

The WRU has presented the regions' umbrella organisation Regional Rugby Wales with a so-called Rugby Services Agreement as a proposed and detailed way forward, but future European competition remains a major sticking point.

Slightly further afield, there is an option for the Welsh regions potentially forging an alliance and new competition with England's 12 Aviva Premiership clubs, although many logistical issues would appear to make that a non-starter.

"There are two basic ingredients to any business. The people, and we've got them, and the product (RaboDirect PRO12)," Thomas said.

"The product we have got isn't acceptable to the public and players, and it's not selling. If you have a product that doesn't sell, you either have to improve or change it.

"If it doesn't sell we are going to die and, right now, regional rugby is dying by a thousand cuts. When do you want the funeral?

"The regions have put forward a Rugby Champions (European) Cup or a British and Irish Cup that maybe is the solution for us.

"Regional Rugby Wales has said (to the WRU) 'there is the proposition, there is the option, January 31 is make your mind up time'. If you can't make your mind up, we have got to consider other options."

Asked what would happen if no agreement is reached by the end of this month, Thomas said: "The RRW board will sit down and carefully examine what the alternatives are.

"And they will then, probably about mid-February, be in a position to set out the path we wish to take."

The Blues, meanwhile, hope they can retain Wales captain Sam Warburton's services beyond this season. He is among leading Wales players to also be offered a WRU central contract, in addition to attracting considerable overseas interest.

Blues chief executive Richard Holland said: "Cardiff Blues has got its best offer on the table.

"Everyone is aware the Welsh Rugby Union have made offers to several players, and they have put that in a new agreement to the regions for our consideration.

"Until we have sight of the competitions we will be playing in as regions, until we have certainty over our future, it is very difficult to consider that position.

"There are meetings taking place on a daily basis surrounding these players. It is a difficult situation. We know the value of Sam at Cardiff Blues, but we can only afford to put our best offer on the table.

"It is hugely damaging to the cashflow of the business not having sight of the competitions we are playing. It really is madness.

"I spent some time in the golf industry, and collaboration brought a Ryder Cup to Wales by private sector, public sector and a desire to do that.

"I then went to horse racing, and horse racing as an industry realised it had to adapt and it had to change. A body called Racing for Change came together for the good of the sport.

"In the whole scheme of things, rugby is still in the early stages of professionalism in comparison to other businesses, and change is going to have to happen.

"People shouldn't be frightened or scared of change, it should be an opportunity - whether it is product or changing of agreements - for the benefit of the sport, not individuals or bodies."

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